II: The Treasuries
II: The Treasuries
As 14 Brigade settled down to a period of routine duty after securing Vella Lavella, 8 Brigade embarked on the division's second task in the campaign—the capture of the Treasury Islands, a small group lying 300 miles north of Guadalcanal and only 18 miles from the Shortland Islands, where the Japanese were strongly entrenched round a series of airfields and naval bases covering their last defence system in the Solomons. The Treasury Group, consisting of Mono and Stirling Islands, with the deep, sheltered waters of Blanche Harbour dividing them, was urgently required to continue the by-passing strategy so successfully developed on Vella Lavella and to assist with a large-scale landing by Vandegrift's United States Marine Corps at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville, the next thrust in the enveloping movement designed to reduce Rabaul and isolate the remaining Japanese garrison, estimated at 24,000, holding Bougainville and neighbouring islands to the south.
A radar station was an imperative accessory to the Bougainville landing to give warning of approaching enemy air and surface page 143 craft, and a site for it was tentatively selected on the northern coast of Mono Island, a densely wooded cone seven miles by three, rising to a height of 1100 feet. Blanche Harbour, as beautiful as any in the Solomons, with tiny, palm-clad islands breaking its surface, fulfilled all requirements as a staging base for naval and barge traffic; and on flat, irregularly shaped Stirling Island, three and a half miles long by anything from 300 to 1500 yards wide, there was an excellent site for an airfield after the removal of its covering of dense forest.
Tactical and supply considerations and the adequacy of air support from existing airfields dictated the landings on both the Treasury Islands and Empress Augusts Bay, and then only after the alternatives of Choiseul, Kahili, and the Shortland Islands had been abandoned because they were too strongly defended. An assault on those two objectives was also considered the best possible method of meeting the Joint Chiefs of Staff directives concerning the Solomons offensive and the subjection of Rabaul, but they were selected only after long discussions by the planning staffs of both MacArthur's and Halsey's headquarters. Most of the information which assisted the planners in arriving at their decision was obtained from reconnaissance parties, which went ashore at night from submarines and landing craft and spent days hiding in the jungle, interrogating natives and observing Japanese defences and movement of garrisons.
Barrowclough was informed of this task on 20 September, when he discussed with Wilkinson various phases of the campaign, following his arrival on Guadalcanal. He allotted it to 8 Brigade, since 14 Brigade was already committed to Vella Lavella, to which it had departed three days after the arrival of 8 Brigade. From the time of its arrival on Guadalcanal, 8 Brigade lost no time in practising with fervour all phases of jungle warfare through the wooded gullies of the Matanikau River and over the grassy ridges radiating from the slopes of Mount Austen—country which had been most bitterly contested by the Japanese in the battle for Guadalcanal. Typical of this thorough training was the despatch of small groups to spend the night bivouacking in the jungle to make themselves familiar with the fantasy of noises and unusual conditions. Combined manœuvres were also held with the Tank Squadron, then camped on the banks of the Lunga River. Tanks were allotted to battalions for field days—Troops one and four with 29 Battalion, two and five with 34 Battalion, and three with 36 Battalion. Although they never worked in combat with 8 Brigade, the exacting experience gained from these exercises was page 144 invaluable in the jungle on Green Island, where the tanks later worked with 14 Brigade.
There was one diversion from training which was typical of warfare in the Solomons, where small units frequently operated in Japanese-held territory to which they moved by submarine, motor torpedo boat or aircraft, and where they were secured against discovery by loyal and co-operative natives. From 30 September until 12 October, a fighting patrol from 29 Battalion under Surgeant G. G. McLeod1 protected a group of four American technicians who were taking astronomical observations on the island of Choiseul, in order to correct irregularities on the existing maps of the Solomons. The patrol was flown from Halavo, an American seaplane base established on the coast of Florida, in a Catalina which also flew them back via Rendova, in the New Georgia Group, at the end of their mission. Friendly natives, to whom McLeod and his men carried gifts of tobacco, food, and clothing, guided the party as it carried out its mission, moving by canoe at night along the coast from village to village without interference. The only excitement during the execution of this valuable task was the failure of the seaplane to rendezvous at the appointed time, causing the party to spend an extra night on the island.
For the assault on the Treasury Group, 8 Brigade came under command of the First Marine Amphibious Corps, command of which passed to Vandegrift on 15 September following the accidental death of Barrett. The whole operation was again under Wilkinson, of Task Force 31. Such naval planning, the work of a United States staff, had been improved after long and often bitter experience since the August landing. Row commanded all land forces, New Zealand and American. He held his first conference on 30 September, the day after receipt of the Corps Commander's letter of instruction, when he explained to his unit commanders the broad outline of the impending operation.
35 NZ Anti-tank Battery at Maravari, Vella Lavella
The carrier platoon of 35 NZ Batallion crosses Timbala Bay in a native Canoe
Solid Mahogany Planks cover a bridge decked with coconut logs over Joroveto River, Vella Lavella. This was the work of 20 field Company New Zealand Engineers.
Brigade Headquarters was expanded to deal with the increased work such planning demanded, not only for the actual assault but for the loading and equipment tables of every landing craft of succeeding flights. Not a foot of space was wasted; the loading tables were meticulously detailed. Major J. G. S. Bracewell was brought up from Base in New Caledonia and appointed AA and QMG, Captain B. M. Silk was attached as staff captain movements, and Captain R. S. Lawrence, of 36 Battalion, as staff captain A to assist the normal staff of the brigade which, once ashore, would constitute an island command. Captain John Merrill, an interpreter of Japanese from 14 Corps Headquarters, also joined the brigade to translate captured documents and interrogate prisoners of war. Lieutenant-Colonel J. Brooke-White1 was appointed New Zealand liaison officer on Corps Headquarters during the planning period, which required the precise co-ordination of all navy, army, and air elements. He and others soon discovered that the service language of the two peoples differed greatly as, for example, when New Zealand ‘unit equipment’ became American ‘impedimenta’.
While this main assault was in progress, a small separate force was to be landed at Soanotalu, a narrow bay on the north coast of Mono, to install a radar station which would look directly into Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville. Topographical information concerning these islands was reasonably good. It was assembled from most excellent air photographs taken, with great thoroughness, by American reconnaissance units and known as ‘hasty terrain’ maps; the personal observations of a naval and marine patrol which landed from a submarine and spent six days on Mono Island in August; and from talks with American airmen who had been rescued from the island after spending some time there when their machine was shot down. From all available sources the brigade intelligence section constructed a twelve feet square sand model for more complete comprehension of Row's plan of attack, which he set about completing with energy and perspicacity.
Twenty miles of primitive roads and a faulty telephone system separated Row from Corps and Task Force Headquarters, and delays in obtaining information and decisions frequently hampered planning, all of which was dictated by the amount of shipping available. The arrival at the last moment of some of the more hastily assembled American units, and the lack of knowledge of their particular tasks also delayed completion of final loading tables, as they were unable to furnish such vital information as the amount of shipping space required and the number of men they were taking forward in the first flight. As the tactical loading and equipment tables were completed ten days before departure, this often led to wasteful and hasty rearrangement.
The original plan for a simultaneous assault on the Treasury Islands and Empress Augusta Bay on 1 November was discarded by the South Pacific Command on 12 October in favour of sending Row's brigade into the Treasuries on 27 October, five days before the establishment of the Bougainville beach-head, in order to have a radar station in operation on Mono. On the night of 27 October, also, a realistic diversionary raid by 2 US Parachute Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel V. H. Krulak was to be made on the island of Choiseul. Krulak was to be prepared to remain there for an indefinite period, which he did, remaining at Voza until the night of 3–4 November, and baffling the Japanese command by concealing the exact locality of the next Allied thrust.
1 Cpl W. M. Gilfillan, m.i.d.; Putaruru; born Fiji, 18 Feb 1918; dairy farmer. Pte C. M. Rusden; Te Awamutu; born Auckland, 17 Jul 1912; hairdresser. L-Cpl J. B. Lempriere, m.i.d.; National Park; born Wellington, 4 Aug 1918; warehouseman.
On 23, 24, and 25 October the slower craft were loaded and despatched from Guadalcanal, staging north via the Russell Islands and Rendova, their movements co-ordinated, under destroyer protection commanded by Rear-Admiral G. H. Fort, so that they would rendezvous off Blanche Harbour on the morning of 27 October. Finally, the faster APDs carrying the assault troops left Guadalcanal on 26 October, the Brigadier and his staff travelling in USS Stringham. The whole force bore a farewell message of the kind to which American commanders were addicted. It concluded: ‘Shoot calmly, shoot fast, and shoot straight’. The men each carried two days' rations, and in their equipment was half a ‘pup’ tent, to be joined with another and set up as one in the bivouac area ashore. They wore steel helmets but carried soft jungle hats in their haversacks. Gas respirators were discarded. The assault troops wore camouflaged jungle uniforms of drill to make them less distinguishable in the jungle; some daubed their hands and faces with stain. The journey to the Treasuries was uneventful. Some men slept on deck in the hot night, for there was no moon.
The following units of the brigade made the landing on Treasury:
8 Brigade MMG Company (Maj G. W. Logan)
Malaria Control Section (2 Lt R. D. Dick)
J Section Signals (Capt G. M. Parkhouse)
10 Mobile Dental Section (Capt J. H. Neville)
American units included 198 Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft Regiment (less one battalion) with sixteen 90-millimetre and thirty-two 37-millimetre guns and twenty searchlights; a company of 87 Naval Construction Battalion (the CBs), and technical personnel to page 149 operate air support, radar station, advanced naval base, a boat pool and a signals unit, totalling 1966 all ranks, 60 per cent of whom landed with the first assault troops.
Zero hour for the landing was set for six minutes past six on the morning of 27 October, but because of the late arrival of the APDs it was delayed for twenty minutes and the radio silence broken by its dissemination to vessels of the convoy. In the grey light of breaking day, and wrapped in a drizzle of warm rain, the convoy lay off the western entrance to Blanche Harbour—eight APDs, eight LCIs, two LSTs and three LCTs, protected by a screen of six American destroyers. Overhead circled a fighter cover of 32 aircraft, including New Zealanders of Nos. 15 and 18 Squadrons, RNZAF, which patrolled from first light. Rain squalls came down as the assault troops descended the rope ladders into the landing craft, which rose and fell below them on the lazy swell, in readiness for the two miles dash up the harbour. Above them, out of page 150 the mist, rose the grey mushroom of Mono and, on the right, the dim shape of trees on Stirling. Moving sluggishly off the islands lay the large landing craft, waiting their turn to enter the harbour and beach after the way had been paved by the assault troops.
Promptly at 5.45 a.m. the guns of two American destroyers, Pringle and Philip, cracked in the morning stillness as they bombarded Falamai and its environs, though many of the shells caught the crest of an island in the harbour and failed to reach their objective. By six o'clock, as the light revealed the scene in detail, the first wave was on its way to the beaches in an atmosphere of noise, rain, and excitement. Because destroyers were unable to manœuvre in the harbour, newly converted LCI gunboats, recently arrived from Noumea and used experimentally for the first time, moved on the left flank of the assaulting waves, pouring streams of tracer like coloured water from a hose into the undergrowth along the shore. They undoubtedly reduced the number of casualties, though by tarrying a little too long off Falamai they did hold up an assault battalion after it landed.
Two minutes after the naval bombardment ceased the first wave of assault troops leaped ashore at 6.26 a.m. from the landing craft, as though on a well-executed manœuvre. As these craft emptied and withdrew, succeeding waves followed at thirty-minute intervals until the last and heavier craft arrived at 9.20 a.m. B and C Companies of 29 Battalion moved quickly through the village of Falamai, with A Company coming in on their left flank to sweep across the whole battalion sector from Cutler's Creek, on the extreme left flank, to the Kolehe River on the extreme right. A and B Companies of 36 Battalion disappeared into dense undergrowth between the Saveke River and Cutler's Creek, A Company under Captain K. E. Louden1 being temporarily held up by the gunboat's stream of tracer, though it went in later to rout out Japanese headquarters 500 yards west of the Saveke River.
There was little opposition to the immediate landing and initial casualties were light. Unexpectedly, landing craft were fired on from Cumming's point on Stirling Island, though no enemy was ever found there. The Japanese garrison (their official time was always different) ceased communication with its headquarters in Rabaul with a message ‘Enemy landing commenced at 0540 hours. We have engaged them.’ before Louden's men drove them up the hillside.
Activity on the beaches was frequently more intense than in the jungle. Sapper J. K. Duncan,5 of 23 Field Company, never left his bulldozer, but kept tracks open from the landing craft to the dump areas, despite exploding mortar bombs.
By 7.35 a.m. the Japanese garrison had reorganised itself and laid down concentrated and accurate mortar and machine-gun fire on the beaches, where the LSTs were unloading heavy supplies, guns, and equipment. Direct hits set two of them on fire, but unloading parties quickly extinguished the outbreaks. Unit parties organising dumps of equipment on the beaches and sorting out gear as it came ashore were caught in the Japanese bombardment. One American 90-millimetre anti-aircraft gun and one New Zealand Bofors gun were destroyed; one 25-pounder gun of 38 Field Regiment was badly damaged and large quantities of ammunition and medical stores were lost. An artillery jeep and truck were both hit and much valuable equipment destroyed; another truck belonging to 4 Company ASC, loaded with ammunition, received a direct hit and blew up, pieces of the truck wrapping themselves round a palm trunk forty feet away. Just before midday a Japanese ammunition dump was hit and blew up, setting fire to the remaining huts of the village, where smoke and flames added to the unholy orchestra. Exploding ammunition caused LST 399 to retract from the beach and move farther along the shore.
The Stirling landing was unopposed and accomplished with ease; as troops cleared Falamai, boats carrying 34 Battalion swung right and went ashore. Two sections of 3-inch mortars were established on Watson Island to cover the perimeter on Mono. Brigade Headquarters, landing in the second wave, moved into a small bay on the inner shore of Stirling and was soon in wireless communication with units scattered over the two islands. During the day guns of 29 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and 38 Field Regiment were landed from LSTs at Falamai and ferried across Blanche Harbour. Late that afternoon they were dragged ashore over the coral and sited along the northern shore of Stirling, from which they covered the whole of Mono Island and both entrances to the harbour. One battery of anti-aircraft guns was temporarily sited on Watson Island. Incredible quantities of coconut palms and vegetation were felled that day to give the guns arcs of fire.
When darkness came, bringing with it more torrential rain, the two battalion perimeters were established, the men sharing without complaint their dank cruciform foxholes with centipedes and other insects repulsive to a degree. During the day a few snipers were shot out of trees inside the perimeter, and under cover of darkness the Japanese attempted to reach their ration dump, which was outside the 36 Battalion perimeter and could not be moved during the day. However, no determined attack developed. From the high country the Japanese dropped occasional mortar bombs into the beach area and swept it periodically with bursts of machinegun fire. A nervous reaction to the night noises and the events of the day caused some indiscriminate shooting, which revealed the position of the men and their posts, but there were actually fewer snipers than was indicated by the excitement they caused. On one occasion, to prove that a tree did not contain snipers, it was ordered to be felled, but nothing unusual spilled out of the branches.
1 The report of CTF 31 stated: ‘The New Zealanders were not easily convinced that unloading by hand was necessary.’
Although the landing was observed by the Japanese, little action was taken because of pressure by Australian and American forces in New Guinea, where the battle at Lae, Salamaua, and Finschafen was adversely affecting them. A reconnaissance aircraft, known as a ‘snooper’, picked up the convoy at 4.20 a.m. as it approached Mono and signalled the information to Rabaul. The commander of the South East Area Fleet immediately ordered an air attack and directed submarine RO-105 to the Treasury Group to report on Allied activity. This craft was sighted from Soanotalu by members of Loganforce as it lay off the island. An air attack by 39 Zeros and 10 carrier bombers from the Shortlands did little damage until nightfall.
During the day enemy aircraft were held off by No. 15 Squadron RNZAF, under Squadron Leader M. J. Herrick,1 and No. 18 Squadron under Squadron Leader J. A. Oldfield,2 which, with American aircraft working from Vella Lavella, maintained an effective cover only rarely broken by the enemy, four of whom were shot down. Although Japanese reports made extravagant claims of sinking two American transports and two cruisers, they did little damage, their only target being the US destroyer Cony, on which they dropped two bombs. A night raid on Mono, built round the light cruiser Nagara and ten destroyers then at Rabaul, was planned by the Japanese area commander but was cancelled the following day because of the rapidly deteriorating situation in New Guinea.
Each day patrols from Graham's company worked out to a depth of 1000 yards through the jungle and along the coast, and by 29 October ran against small parties of Japanese filtering through from Falamai. The first serious attempt was made to reach the beach late that afternoon, when a party of twenty Japanese attacked the perimeter but were driven back by No. 14 Platoon under Lieutenant R. M. Martin,5 leaving five dead. That night guns of 38 Field Regiment emplaced along the harbour coast of Stirling Island, six miles away, registered outside the Loganforce perimeter, lobbing their shells over the crown of Mono. Clashes with the enemy halted neither the construction of the road nor the installation of the urgently required radar, the first of which was in operation two days after landing at Soanotalu. There was difficulty in restraining the enthusiasm of the American technicians, both radar and engineer, who frequently assisted the New Zealand patrols instead of concentrating on their construction work.
Meanwhile, increasing patrol clashes indicated growing Japanese strength, though the enemy made no attempt no reach the radar and was unaware of its existence. A small patrol under Lieutenant J. A. H. Dowell2 encountered a strong enemy force 1500 yards beyond the perimeter on 1 November and withdrew after inflicting damage, as Dowell feared an ambush in such close country. With the arrival of reinforcements Logan divided his force, using Braithwaite's group to guard the radar station high above the beach and the remainder to guard the original perimeter round headquarters and a second station. Closer to the beach, inside the perimeter in a strongpoint covering a barge drawn up on the sand, was a small force of nine men, six New Zealanders and the three American members of the barge crew, under Captain L. J. Kirk.3
Platoons on the west perimeter fought off the attackers without loss. Fifty Japanese dead were counted that morning by patrols, but as on every other occasion, the wounded had been removed. Captured enemy equipment included five knee mortars, four light machine guns, several dozen rifles and one sword. During the day Logan reorganised his defences in readiness for attacks which came on the two following nights, though with decreasing violence, from desperate refugees who represented the last Japanese resistance on Mono. Patrols afterwards fanned out from the perimeter, picked up a few stragglers, and drove the remainder into hiding. D Company was relieved by A Company under Captain A. G. Steele2 on 5 November, but the Loganforce garrison was never again attacked.
Organised resistance in the Treasuries ceased on the night of 2–3 November, but groups of Japanese survivors secreted themselves in caves along the northern coast, where they built rafts in an effort to escape to the Shortlands. These survivors were eliminated only with difficulty by patrols. One such raft carrying an unknown number of Japanese was rammed and strafed by a motor torpedo boat four miles off shore. After moving elements of 34 Battalion to Malsi, which looked directly on to the Shortlands, Row ordered the whole island of Mono to be combed by fighting patrols. The hazards of these expeditions were increased by the density of the jungle and by broken watercourses which, radiating from the crown of the island, cut down to the coast in small rivers.
Killed: New Zealand 40, United States 12
Wounded: New Zealand 145, United States 29
Occasional Japanese were sighted in the jungle up to the end of December, and even in January, giving rise to fantastic stories, some of them true, of their attempts to obtain food from unit cookhouses and their escapes when pursued. One such story, a true one, concerned an American cook who disturbed a Japanese in his modest kitchen and knocked out the intruder with a Coleman lamp. This Japanese had been hiding close beside 34 Battalion's open-air theatre. Such was one aspect of war in the the jungle. Civil administration was restored on 1 November by Major D. C. C. Trench, of the Government service, and the flag raised over the ruins of Falamai.
Although command of 8 Brigade did not revert to the division until 16 November, Barrowclough and some of his senior officers visited the Treasuries on 2 November, travelling from Vella Lavella by motor torpedo boat and reaching Blanche Harbour by dawn. Moving from beach-head to beach-head by landing craft, the General visited as many units as possible in company with Row and arrived to find the Soanotalu action still in progress.